For the last 20 years over one weekend in May, 40 teams of runners have taken part in an amazing event organised by The Stragglers Running Club called the Green Belt Relay. There are 22 stages and 11 runners per team, which means that each runner has to run a leg of the relay on both the Saturday and the Sunday. The legs are all different in terms of length, terrain and difficulty, and they cover a massive 220 mile loop around the green belt land outside the M25, circling London.
As a club, the Eagles had arranged to take three teams along this year and following a number of other people dropping out injured, my borderline fast enough 10k pace got me a coveted place on one of those teams. I’d never run a multi-day event before and the idea of racing for two days in a row was a bit daunting, but everyone reassured me that this particular event was hugely friendly and inclusive and that there was very little to worry about. Very little rather than nothing at all, since there would be a degree of map reading involved; the lovely folk of the Stragglers provide a fair bit of wayfinding but 220 miles is a really long way for every twist and turn to be marked up for you! I’d been allocated a long-ish but flat stage of 10.65 miles on the Saturday and a short but twisty 6.6 mile stage on the Sunday. My sense of direction is a bit of a joke in our household (we have a satnav for the sake of our marriage), but I thought I could just about follow the detailed directions the organisers had provided.
Although each runner only had one stage per day to tackle, all three teams needed to be ferried around to be at the right stages at the right times. Each stage has a set start time, so there is no actual baton passing involved in the relay. This meant that there were 9 different cars involved with up to 5 Eagles in each one at any given time. Sometimes the drivers were also runners, other times someone else had to take over for a bit so that the actual car owner could run their scheduled stage. There were set points we all had to meet at to swap passengers or pick up people’s bags so that they wouldn’t be waiting too long for them at the end of their relay leg. The whole timetable was arranged with such intricate logistical precision that we really should be concerned that the Eagles who sorted it all out may genuinely try a bid for world domination. Seriously impressive work.
Anyway we all turned up at 7am on Ealing Green, coffees in hand, to head to the first starting point at Hampton Court Palace. There was a chap at the palace who was not too keen on the 120 or so runners who turned up wanting to use his loos, but strength of numbers meant he didn’t have a great deal of choice. Within 5 minutes we were happily listening to a total stranger tell us a Manchester marathon loo based horror story which involved squatting behind bushes (what makes runners share these stories so freely?!). The runners set off for the first stage and I spent the rest of the day sharing a car with my two Eagles rivals for our stage later in the day. Much hilarity, none of it clean enough to share here, ensued and by the time we got to 4pm and the start of our leg we had completely forgotten we were supposed to be racing each other, and planned to at least run the first part of the stage together to make sure no one got lost.
The Saturday stage was 10.65 miles, but all but the first 3.5 or so was down the canal towpath, which made it really easy to navigate. Once we were on the towpath my two speedier club mates left me to it, but because we had gone out fairly quickly I managed to keep going at a decent lick. I seem to have a habit of sticking pretty much to whatever rhythm I set out at when I run, which is helpful if I get the pacing right at the start but can be a hindrance if I’ve started out slowly. In this case because we had set a 9.40ish pace in the first mile I managed not to get too much slower along the way, eventually finishing the distance in 1:45 or so – I counted this as a win considering that last Autumn I had taken longer than that to do the Royal Borough of Kingston 10, and this was slightly further.
Sunday had dawned looking like it might not be quite so warm, but alas the sun came out as we wended our way back from Ealing to Essex to pick up where the relay had left off on the Saturday. I was very glad my stage on day 2 was just over 10k at 9am – much more in my comfort zone than 10 miles plus at four in the afternoon. Having made a quick stop over the road from popular TOWIE haunt The Fat Turk for an obligatory picture with the road sign on ‘Eagle Way’, we arrived in plenty of time to try to stretch out our aching legs before we set off.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how much my legs were hurting at the start of the second day. I had pushed myself faster than I intended on day 1 and had run my fastest time ever for 10 miles, so I suppose I shouldn’t really have been surprised that someone appeared to have removed my legs and replaced them with lead pipes overnight. Despite the shorter distance and the earlier start, this meant that for me the Sunday stage felt a lot harder than Saturday. In the end tried to focus on form rather than speed and to just keep going, knowing that I would only be going for a bit over an hour anyway and could then relax and enjoy being part of the cheer squad. There was a hairy moment with the wayfinding when I ran twice over a slip road onto the M25, but I soon got my bearings again and carried on pushing to the finish line. I was a bit disappointed with my time, I’d really wanted to stick to 10 minute miles on the second day, but never mind – I had done my bit and hadn’t been run over, so that was good! Over the rest of the day seeing the hills, stairs and difficult terrain the others had to cope with I was quite pleased to have had my nice little woodland 6 miler in the morning.
The rest of the day continued to the same routine as the Saturday – driving about picking up and dropping off runners for their different legs, eating way too much cake, and acting as a mobile cheer squad. Cheering with the Eagles is great fun, we’re very enthusiastic and it was apparent on both days who the gobbiest team was – it definitely got a lot quieter at each stage when the last Eagle had gone through! There really ought to have been a special cheering prize…
Something else we noticed across the weekend was that one of the other clubs, Burgess Hill, seemed to be running a lot of their stages together – they were fielding three teams as well. There was even one lady who beat her team mates up a hill and then stopped and waited for them to catch up, politely resisting our efforts to cheer her on to victory. It was a great example of teamwork and was lovely to see amongst all the competitive speed demons from most of the other clubs.
The Green Belt Relay finished back in Kingston on the Sunday evening, with the whole team screaming our three glory leg runners over the line and a cluster of top 10 finishes on both days to the club’s credit. I really enjoyed my first foray into multi-day running events. Who knows, maybe next year I will get round a bit quicker and contribute to the scoring!